In 2003 the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club reached its 120th birthday.
The inaugural performance of this undergraduate Club under that name was in June 1883, for one night only, in the town theatre (between Emmanuel and University Arms Hotel). This was a private occasion; but to a 'large and fashionable audience' - the theatre held 800. The club had about 30 members.
For some months before the name 'Footlights' was chosen, the group had performed to local audiences in the Cambridge area (once, with a cricket match included, at the 'pauper lunatic asylum'). They wished to go wider than the University Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC), founded in 1885, with its membership drawn largely from Trinity, and its theatre seating only 100. They were to perform every May Week at the Theatre Royal, the shows soon open to the public. A local paper commended the Club's appeal to the 'general public, the many different classes of which life in Cambridge in made up'.
For the first nine years the offerings were from Victorian stock: dramas, 'burlesques', one-act farces. But there were also original pieces such as the 1885 Uncle Joe at Oxbridge, 'A New and Original Comic Operetta', with a cast of 21. In 1892 came Alma Mater; A Comedy-Burlesque in Three Acts, words and music by two Trinity men. From 1892 the Footlights have presented only their original material.
The New Dean Image
In 1910 the Footlights appeared in London. After five Cambridge performances The Socialist, a 'musical satire', with a cast of 46, did a charity matinee at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, in aid, according to the programme, of the 'Anti-Socialist Union'. Another Court matinee came in 1912, in aid of the 'Children's Dinner Fund', with The Vegetarians, 'An Original and Dietetic Absurdity'. (A cast member lived until 1989, and was officially shown round the Footlights Centenary Exhibition at the University Library in 1983).
The 1913 Cheero Cambridge, written by and starring Jack Hulbert, with a cast of 28, went to the Queen's Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue for a matinee in aide of the 'Children's Holiday Fund. Also at the Queen's in June 1914 came a matinee for the 'National Institute for the Blind' of Was it the Lobster?, a 'Plotless Musical Satire'. Footlights did not appear in London again until 1947.
Hulbert's 1913 success was 'Musical Comedy'. In 1919 the Footlights show was an 'Original Topical Revue'.
In 1919 the Club rented its fourth 'Club Room', occupied until 1939. This was in the Masonic Hall, Corn Exchange Street, near the present entrance to the Lion Yard Car Park. Two rooms in fact, with a bar and small stage, a steward and bar boy, food provided, and newspapers taken: a small scale 'gentleman's club'. The aim was 100 or more members - a figure reached in 2002. There were never more than 70.
Arts Theatre opened
The Cambridge Arts Theatre opened in early 1936, paid for by J M Keynes, Fellow of King's, and controlled by a Trust 'which is fully representative of the Town and the University'. The trustees included the mayor and deputy mayor, the Provost of King's, the professors of English and Music, and George Rylands, Fellow of King's. The Footlights were invited to present their May Week revue there in 1936 - the first of 53 revues to be presented at the Arts.
In 1936 there was a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 24. Three more revues came before the war. Rylands was the director in 1938. In 1939 the star was Jimmy Edwards, who after the war went into the professional theatre, as Jack and Claude Hulbert had done, and Richard Murdoch, not to mention Cecil Beaton. The Footlights was a 'theatrical' club - in 1919 it was suggested that membership be limited to those who 'benefit the club from a theatrical standpoint'. But gentlemanly amateur dramatics were the style. Among 1930s revue performers were (looking ahead) the President of the International Olympics Committee (Michael Killanin), a Professor of Psychiatry at Sydney and Birmingham (William Trethowan), an Attorney-General (Peter Rawlinson) and a speech-writer for Mrs Thatcher (Ronald Miller).
During the Second World War, as in the first, the Club was out of action. It revived early in 1947, and presented a May Week revue at the ADC theatre (cast of 16, oplus percussion and two pianos). This went to London for one performance at the Ambassadors Theatre. In 1948 the 'All-Male Revue' (thus promoted on the poster) returned to the Arts. Until 1954 the rubric ran 'the Footlights presents, by arrangement with the Arts Theatre Trust'.
Certain items were especially memorable (plus the decors by Malcolm Burgess). In the 1949 Always in June Simon Phipps, later Bishop of Lincoln, was a society hostess and a Botticelli angel. The 1951 A Flash in the Cam (cast of 24) included 'Latin Quarter', and classical, and classic, number about Nero's domestic problems, words and music by Julian Slade. A wider world became interested. Both BBC TV and the BBC Light Programme broadcast 30 minutes of extracts from A Flash in the Cam, and nine cast members (including another future bishop) appeared in cabaret ('The Cambridge University Show') at the Dorchester. Demand for tickets in Cambridge became so great that from 1952 the revue ran not for one week but two.
Cabaret Audience Image
Brains and Wit
Out of the Blue (1954), with Jonathan Miller, Leslie Bricusse and John Pardoe (future Liberal MP) went on to the Phoenix Theatre Charing Cross Road for three well-attended weeks: 'an example of brains and wit unrivalled by anything in London' (Harold Hobson, Sunday Times). From 1955 the revue was 'presented' by the Arts Theatre Trust. The 1955 Between the Lines played for three weeks in London at the Scala Theatre Charlotte Street. Jonathan Miller did his Bertrand Russell impression, later included in the Broadway version of Beyond the Fringe. In 1956 Anything May, with Dan Massey, was put on at the Lyric Hammersmith, in association with HM Tennent. Then came the revues (in Cambridge only) with Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron (1959) and Cook and David Frost (1960).
Peter Cook Image
The Club had been homeless since the war. In the late 1950s the Arts Theatre, then the helpful patron of the Footlights, looked out for suitable premises. The Club Room which opened in 1960 in Falcon Yard, off Petty Cury, was technically the 'Arts Theatre Rehearsal Room'. The premises survived until 1972, when the area was demolished for the Lion Yard shopping precinct. A proposal (not by the Club) to place a plaque came to nothing, because the exact site was difficult to work out. After 1972 the Club never had satisfactory premises. Now it has none.
The 1963 Cambridge Circus (originally in Cambridge called A Clump of Plinths) went on to York, and then was brought to London by the young producer Michael White, first for five weeks at the New Arts Theatre Newport Street and then for three months at the Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue. The cast of seven included Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Ms Jo Kendall and David Hatch (later Head of BBC Light Entertainment). In London Graham Chapman replaced a busy research pathologist. There was a band of five. The pianist, and musical director, Hugh MacDonald a new Fellow of Pembroke, became Professor of Music at Oxford, Glasgow, and , now, St Louis Missouri. A few London critics disapproved because it was not Beyond the Fringe. Herbert Kretzmer: 'There is little to indicate that its cast have read a newspaper since 1960'. But the Evening News applauded 'the absence of political satire, the humour is timeless'. Parlophone issued an LP record, reissued in 1993 on cassette. This does justice to the songs (mostly by Bill Oddie) but the long courtroom routine - the most hilarious sketch ever presented by Footlights - was too visual to come across on sound only. Cambridge Circus went on to New Zealand and New York. Time Magazine gave it a full-page review: 'The big new is that it thinks small and carries a big slapstick'.
Cambridge Circus - Cleese, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor et al Image
There were some later far-flung ventures. The 1983 centenary revue went to Australia in 1984. And in 1987 seven Footlights members did a 'Tour of the Americas' - Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and a comedy store in New York.
From the early 1960s the Edinburgh Festival beckoned, especially the increasingly abundant Fringe. Beyond the Fringe opened in Edinburgh in August 1960, and visited the Cambridge Arts on its way south. The Cambridge half of the cast were Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook, recent Footlights President. In August 1962 four current Footlighters appeared in Edinburgh before an audience of two on their first night, soon increased to a fashionable 100. The four were Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Graham Chapman (particularly praised by The Scotsman) and Ian Lang (later Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland). Cambridge Circus was booked for the Fringe in 1963, but was waylaid. The first focused assault on the Fringe was by Clive James (President 1966/67, revue director 1967, 1969). He presented a cast of six including himself and Julie Covington, in August 1967, returning in 1969 with another sextet, including Russell Davies, backed by the 'Orledge Trio' - Robert Orledge is now Professor of Music at Liverpool
Both these shows came back to Cambridge in October for a week at the Arts. Harold Hobson, 1974: 'One has grown accustomed at the Edinburgh Festival to finding year after year the most successful late night show is the Cambridge Footlights Revue'. The Perrier Award - the top comedy prize at Edinburgh - was won by the revue in 1981. The cast included Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery.
The Cellar Tapes Image
The revue continues to appear in Edinburgh every year, usually in abbreviated form. In 2001 the Perrier was won by a trio of former Footlighters, 'Garth Marenghi'. In 2002 in addition to the revue at least ten Footlights alumni appeared in various 'stand-up' venues.
London ventures went less smoothly after Cambridge Circus. The 1965 My Girl Herbert, with Eric Idle, went to the Lyric, Hammersmith. W A Darlington, veteran critic of The Daily Telegraph, couldn't 'feel that the entertainment justified their journey from Cambridge, or mine to Hammersmith.' One critic, however, approved of 'an Australian girl who had a natural ability to project her voice' - Germaine Greer. The 1973 revue went to the Round House, Chalk Farm, NW1, with a cast including Griff Rhys Jones and Mary Allen (later secretary of the Arts Council and, briefly, in charge of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.) In 1974, 'in association with Michael White', Chox, the 'Cambridge Arts Theatre Trust Production', arrived for three weeks at the Comedy Theatre Panton Street.
Audiences liked it, but attendance was not encouraged by the hostile press reception. W A Darlington again: 'Youthful perkiness is no substitute for wit, and giggling facetiousness no consolation for lack of talent. It is a Cambridge weakness to prefer jocosity to humour'. (The cast included Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson.) That was the last appearance of Footlights in the West End until 2001 revue played for one Sunday night at the Fortune Theatre.
May Week has in Cambridge become decreasingly the be-all and end-all, and the emphasis for the Footlights revue has increasingly been placed on the tour. From 1995 the revue programme-book has been for the 'National tour Show'. The 2002 revue, between its Cambridge appearances in June and early October, was in Edinburgh for three weeks, and also in nearly 20 other places (mainly one night stands) from Dover to Bangor. The tours have meant smaller casts, and fewer (if any) musicians. In 2002 there was a cast of five, and no band. Of course, after Beyond the Fringe and, in a different style, John Cranko's Cranks (1956) with its cast of four, the old-style revue, a series of isolated sketches and songs, loosely combined, became out of fashion. Something tighter and more sustained - even thematic - became the vogue. The American tourists who famously thought The Cherry Orchard more of a play than a show would have thought the same about the latest Footlights revues. Anyone longing, nostalgically or otherwise, for something more lavish would feel at home less at the summer revue than at the pantomime - the Footlights/ADC pantomimes, which began at the ADC in 1970. The 2001 The Scarlet Pimpernel, the 32nd panto, had a cast of 20 and a seven piece band.
After the 1992 Footlights revue, the Arts Theatre closed for rebuilding. The architect for the renewal was Barry Brown, revue performer 1967 and 1968, President 1968/69, revue director 1972. For four years the revue was at the ADC. The Footlights returned to the Arts, now under a new regime, in 1997: for four years only. The relationship with the Arts, begun in 1936, ended with the 2000 revue, presented by 'Cambridge Footlights and Cambridge Arts Theatre'. The 2001 and 2002 revues were at the ADC, presented by the Footlights, running for three weeks. So now Footlights performances are entirely at the ADC: Spring Revue, Revue and Pantomime.
Since the early 1960s Footlight experience has become the foundation of many a professional career, in radio, TV, or, more recently the comedy store circuit. Some undergraduates have agents. And the Club is seen by media journalists, executives and researchers solely as a preparatory school for rising or risen performers. In March 2000 Tokyo television transmitted a 60-minute survey of the Footlights year, expensively filmed during a month in Cambridge. The title was translated (by the producers) as Wanna Be a Comedy Star: Cambridge Footlights. The network claimed six million viewers, impressed by 'how passionately students in Cambridge pursue comedy'. The Japanese director, a Cambridge undergraduate in the late 1980s, never then saw a Footlights show!
Dr Harry Porter, January 2003
Dr Porter was Senior Treasurer, and later Senior Archivist of the Footlights from the early sixties until his death in 2003.
More Archive photos can be found in the Alumni pages